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Screwing the Patriarchy: The Rise of Feminist Pornography

Arts & Culture | October 10, 2017

At first glance, the phrase “feminist porn” may seem like an oxymoron of epic proportions. Although many feminists strongly believe in the importance of destigmatizing sexuality and desire, others are skeptical that ethical, feminist porn could even exist, and consider the sexual objectification of women to be inherent to pornography. Andrea Dworkin, a radical feminist involved in activism during the 1970s, characterized pornography in her 1996 book Intercourse as the essence of male power, saying “Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.” Yet in recent years a rising number of professionals working within the porn industry have created content that defies this belief.

Feminists have debated the morality of pornography since the beginning of the Women’s Movement, and the discussion gained national attention during the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s. This period of the Women’s Movement was characterized by highly polarized debate between “pro-sex” and  “anti-pornography” feminists. In 1976, an organization known as Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media set out to educate people about the “woman-hatred” expressed in pornography and other media, and to raise awareness about the link between pornography and sexual violence against women. They continued on to characterize the proliferation of pornography at that time as a backlash against the feminist movement.

In contrast, pro-sex feminists advocated for a radical change in how our society views sexual pleasure, whether that be through pornography, sex work, or daily acts of intimacy. Pro-sex feminists attempted to reframe the typically male-centric conversation about pornography in order to urge the industry to represent sexual desire in a more positive, healthy way. Why is feminine sexual desire considered shameful? Why do so many of the conversations surrounding sexuality in society center around the dominance of cis men and the cis male experience? Why do we actively deride those whose sexual preferences deviate from our arbitrary socio-sexual “norm?” These questions, raised by members of the feminist movement during the ‘70s and ‘80s, are ones that our society still grapples with to this day.

The contemporary definition of feminist porn, while still widely debated, can be loosely defined by a certain set of guidelines that many feminist porn sites and companies include in their mission statements. First, performers of all genders in feminist pornography must be treated as equals. That includes compensation, health benefits such as access to contraceptives and STI screenings, explicit consent from both actors before, during, and after a scene, and equal weight to both performers’ sexual pleasure during the scene. Feminist porn rejects the concept of the male gaze—porn that is heavily male-centric, based on male pleasure, and from a male perspective—that permeates contemporary pornography.

Second, providing the emotional context for sex through the filming, editing, and acting of each scene is important to feminist pornographers because it actively works against the idea that sex is something that happens to people, and that instead, healthy, consensual sex is something that people do together. Feminist porn also strives to elevate queer sex and queer relationships beyond the fetishized role the queer community often plays in mainstream pornography. Porn series such as CrashPad depicts queer sex that is meant to service queer viewers, and their website indicates their works strive to be a “honest depiction of female and queer sexuality.”

Finally, and possibly most importantly, truly feminist porn is porn that strives to accurately depict the wide spectrum of human sexuality, and challenges the stereotypes of women and marginalized communities often presented in mainstream porn. According to feminist pornographer and sex educator Tristan Taormino in a 2013 interview with Cosmopolitan, “Feminist porn explores ideas about desire, beauty, pleasure, and power through alternative representations, aesthetics, and filmmaking styles. Feminist porn seeks to empower the performers who make it and the people who watch it.”

That’s not to say that feminist porn isn’t hot. Feminist porn can be just as steamy, kinky, or wild as mainstream porn, but without the guilt, shame, and discomfort many people experience while watching the degradation of the actors in mainstream pornography. In fact, many of the mainstream media’s assumptions about feminist porn are completely unfounded and often unfairly discouraging to potential viewers. Feminist porn celebrates diversity of sexuality and sexual preference, and thus is able to appeal to a wide range of audiences.

Contrary to popular belief, feminist porn is easily accessible and readily available. While mainstream porn may still vastly outnumber feminist alternatives, the past two decades have seen exponential growth in the field of feminist pornography. Thanks to technological innovations of the early 2000s, the porn industry has become much more accessible to a much wider variety of directors, producers, actors, and filmmakers. With the rise of the Toronto-based Feminist Porn Awards—the longest running celebration of erotica focused on women and marginalized people—feminist porn and pornographers are gaining national and international attention. As Toronto Feminist Porn Awards Coordinator Carlyle Jansen articulates in a 2017 interview with Telegraph, “It’s really exciting because now you have trans people and people with disabilities making porn. Communities who are often underrepresented, stereotyped, and fetishized are now making [porn] on their own terms.”

Whole sites such as Feminist Porn Reviews are dedicated to recommending videos, filmmakers, and databases that proliferate feminist porn. Highly rated sites include Indie Porn Revolution–one of the oldest queer porn production companies–CrashPad Series, LustFilms, and many other websites, most of which have been operating for over a decade to provide porn that is inclusive and feminist. As LustFilms producer Erika Lust explained to Feministing, “Porn has the ability to not only inspire passions and lusts we never knew we had, but also educate, allowing women to explore their sexuality, embrace it, enjoy it, and to demand our right to sexual pleasure.”

Although the feminist porn industry is thriving, its anti-pornography counter-movement continues to fight back. Prominent anti-pornography voices such as Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer argue that the “need” to consume pornography at all, feminist or not, is a constructed desire under patriarchal capitalism. Even within the feminist porn industry, many disagree about what actually constitutes feminist porn, and where to draw the line between validating a variety of sexual desires and veering into un-feminist territory. Filmmakers like Taormino are of the view that one’s sexual desires are fully authentic, and thus are wholly self-justifying. However, Taormino’s critics, like University of Dayton Professor Jessica Whisnant, would argue that some sexual desires and kinks cross an ethical line, and the degradation of performers for sexual pleasure on camera can never be seen as feminist, with or without the consent of the performers. As Whisnant argues in her 2016 study of Taormino’s work, “Either it is feminist to celebrate and advertise women’s ‘authentic’ desire to be sexually dominated, or it is not. Either it is ethical and honorable to ‘play with’ and promote dynamics of humiliation and violence that terrorize, maim, and kill women daily, or it is not.”

Pornography, whether we want to admit it or not, plays a powerful role in shaping our cultural concepts about sex, desire, and gender equality. Sex and desire are integral parts of the human experience, and in our increasingly digitized world, porn has—for better or for worse—come to play a key role in the development of our own sexual identities and preferences. Human sexuality, however, does not have to be shameful and taboo. Once we destigmatize sexuality, we as a society can have more frank conversations about the nature of intimacy, and how to promote and preserve gender equity while still having positive sexual experiences.